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Chinese Wallpaper, Chinoiserie and the Historic House, a fascinating study day at Temple Newsam

On 25th September 2023, Temple Newsam in Leeds, West Yorkshire, opened its doors to country house owners, curators, and enthusiasts for a special study day dedicated to Chinese wallpaper. Organised by Historic Houses, the event focused on understanding these beautiful wallcoverings within the broader style phenomenon of chinoiserie - the European interpretation of East Asian art and design.

The Chinese Drawing Room at Temple Newsam (image kindly provided by and © Temple Newsam, Leeds Museums & Galleries)

Who better to open the event than Emile de Bruijn, Assistant National Curator with the National Trust and author of the excellent Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland. His presentation ably introduced the theme of chinoiserie and focused on understanding Chinese wallpapers within this context.

Rachel Peat-Underhill, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Royal Collection, followed with an instructive overview of East Asian objects and decoration within the Royal households. This ranged from the Tudor court kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, to the heavy influence of chinoiserie on interiors at Carlton House and Brighton Pavilion.

The last of the solo presenters was Allyson McDermott, wallpaper conservator, providing a practical focus on the care and conservation of Chinese wallpapers. This took in the inherent vulnerabilities of this fragile paper, along with the various dilemmas and considerations for safe display.

The wallpaper in the Chinese Room at Burton Constable was one example up for discussion. Left: historical photograph; Right: the room following conservation to the wallpaper (images kindly provided by and © Burton Constable Foundation)

A delicious lunch was followed by a panel discussion, led by a number of country-house curators with Chinese wallpapers under their care. From the chance discovery of wallpapers in store at Harewood House, to the challenges of presentation and interpretation at Burton Constable, and current conservation projects at Chatsworth, this session opened up wider conversations about the care and interpretation of Chinese wallpapers in the historic house.

Detail from the Temple Newsam Chinese Drawing Room wallpaper, showing golden winged woodpeckers from ‘Audubon’s Birds of America’ added to the original design (images kindly provided by and © Temple Newsam, Leeds Museums & Galleries)

The programme culminated with attendees being invited to view Temple Newsam’s own excellent example of Chinese wallpaper up close. In the aptly named Chinese Drawing Room, this fine hand-painted paper was likely a gift to Lady Hertford from the Prince of Wales (future George IV) in 1807. It didn’t go onto the walls until the 1820s, at which point Lady Hertford infamously made her own additions using illustrations cut out from Audubon’s Birds of America – now one of the most valuable books in the world!

The paper provides a backdrop to an array of Chinese origin and chinoiserie style ceramics and furniture, many of which were originally chosen for the room by Lady Hertford (images author’s own)

Curator Adam Toole spoke about some of the wider issues connected to the wallpaper which Temple Newsam are aiming to tackle – from working with local Chinese community groups to recognising John James Audubon’s links to slavery – highlighting the opportunities for, and importance of, considered interpretation within the historic house.

A selection of wallpaper on display at Temple Newsam (images author’s own)

To round off an excellent day, attendees were invited to tour the house – a treat to enjoy without any other visitors, and a particularly good opportunity to enjoy the many other wallpapers on display!

Eleanor Brooke-Peat, Curator of Collections & Archive at Castle Howard


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